Angels in the meatloaf: John Leonard, book reviewer

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John F
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Angels in the meatloaf: John Leonard, book reviewer

Post by John F » Sun Mar 18, 2012 1:04 am

I miss him.

The Enthusiast
John Leonard’s ‘Reading for My Life’
By PHILLIP LOPATE
Published: March 16, 2012

When John Leonard died in 2008, it did not immediately register that we had lost one of the last and best of a nearly extinct breed, the lifelong book reviewer. Some might prefer the more dignified label “literary critic,” or “cultural critic” (he did write extensively about television and other subjects); but Leonard himself did not insist on dignity. His roots and manner were journalistic — he fit into the world of newspapers (including The New York Times Book Review, which he edited in the 1970s), magazines (Harper’s, The Nation, New York), radio (“Fresh Air”) and television (“CBS Sunday Morning”) — and that casual, accessible tone may be why, for all his erudition, he is usually not discussed in the same breath with other literary arbiters who radiated more gravitas.

READING FOR MY LIFE
Writings, 1958-2008
By John Leonard. Edited by Sue Leonard.
382 pp. Viking. $35.

Now the opportunity presents itself to re-engage and assess his essays and reviews, with this healthy selection by his widow, Sue Leonard, drawn from a half-century of writing. It comes framed with an introduction by E. L. Doctorow and a coda of tributes (less sticky than I feared) by his friends, family members and colleagues, who portray him as a mensch, a celebrant of women writers, defender of underdogs, devoted sports fan, heavy drinker and meld of contradictions. According to the author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, “He was both a fair-minded journalist and an unreconstructed lefty, a formidable intellect and a regular guy.”

In the title essay, “Reading for My Life,” he tells us of growing up in California, where “I couldn’t tan, hated cars, refused to surf and flunked volleyball, grunion-hunting and puberty rite. Like lonely kids everywhere, I entered into books as if into a conspiracy — for company, of course, and for narrative and romance and advice on how to be decent and brave and sexy. But also for transcendence, a zap to the synaptic cleft; for a slice of the strange, the shock of an Other, a witness not yet heard from, archaeologies forgotten, ignored or despised; that radioactive glow of genius in the dark: grace notes, ghosts and gods.”

That youthful hunger for transcendent literary sorcery would evolve into the adult reviewer’s embrace of Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel García Márquez and magic realism, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Maxine Hong Kingston and Günter Grass. He was drawn to overstuffed books that, as he says about Doctorow’s “City of God,” were “about, well . . . everything.” He also specialized in appraising ambitious, baggy novels by major writers past their prime, like Milan Kundera’s “Immortality,” Doris Lessing’s “Four-Gated City,” Ralph Ellison’s “June­teenth,” Thomas Pynchon’s “Vineland,” Ernest Hemingway’s “True at First Light” and Norman Mailer’s “Harlot’s Ghost.”

He would typically have read everything by the author under review; his critical method was not so much to dissect the book or build a systematic argument, but to surround it with a dense inventory of fondly, sometimes mockingly paraphrased plot details and quotes, so that a reader could imbibe its ambience. For instance, take this characteristic passage from his review of “Harlot’s Ghost”:

“When his battery’s charged, Mailer windmills from one paragraph to the next — baroque, anal, Talmudic, olfactory, portentous, loopy, coy, Egyptian; down and dirty in the cancer, the aspirin or the plastic; shooting moons on sheer vapor; blitzed by paranoia and retreating for a screen pass, as if bitten in the pineal gland by a deranged Swinburne, with metaphors so meaning-moistened that they stick to our thumbs, with ‘intellections’ (as he once put it) slapped on ‘like adhesive plasters.’ When he chooses to, he also speaks in tongues. Harlot sounds like Whittaker Chambers. Modene Murphy sounds like Lauren Bacall. Bill Harvey sounds like L. Ron Hubbard or Lyndon LaRouche. The guilt-ridden Uruguayan double agent Chevi Fuentes sounds like Frantz Fanon and Octavio Paz. Harry sounds like Rousseau’s Émile when he isn’t sounding like Wilhelm Reich, and Kittredge sounds like Flaubert’s Salammbô when she isn’t sounding like Hannah Arendt, and together they sound like Nichols and May. And everybody sounds like Mailer, as if picking up quasar signals from Sirius the Dog Star through a plate in the head; as if bodies, vegetables and objects all had distinctive vibrations, special stinks and personal divinities, angels in the meatloaf, demons in the Tupperware. Even money comes ‘in all kinds of emotional flavors.’ Ghosts! Pirates! Indians! Animism! Alchemy! You either like this stuff or you don’t, and I do.”

The same could be said about the above: You either like this sort of criticism or you don’t. Actually, I’m mixed. I like the bravura verbal effects (“angels in the meatloaf”!), the playful wit when he’s on a roll, the range of references, the throwaway insights. But I also get tired of the careening, cumulative lists; I yearn for a more straightforward or prioritized analysis. And sometimes Leonard’s prose preens too much and comes off as cute or glib. Still, the nobility of his method is that he always seems more amused by imperfection than offended. While by no means uncritical, he clearly liked writers as a class and tended to give them the benefit of the doubt. Himself the author of several novels, he sympathized with the effort it took to write even a flawed one. You will find nothing in him of that anger or sour disappointment that is the hallmark of many critics. He reserved his outrage for politics (his scathing commentaries on Richard Nixon, the government’s neglect of AIDS), or for mistreatment of women (he could not forgive Bob Dylan for acting churlishly toward Joan Baez).

At a moment when it counted, Leonard pronounced himself unapologetically multicultural, championing writers of color and foreign authors as much as he did women writers. Toni Morrison testifies in her tribute: “John, you were the first — I suspect only — critic/reviewer to read and judge my work without condescension or patronage.” Indeed, Leonard seems rather to have been in awe of Morrison, never more so than when invited to attend her Nobel Prize ceremony. As he described it: “The winner of the prize came down the marble steps at last, on the arm of the king of Sweden. Never mind that I am pale and I am male. She’d taught me to imagine the lost history of her people, to read the signs of love and work and nightmare passage and redemptive music, to hear the deepest chords of exile. I was proud to be a citizen of whatever country Toni Morrison came from. And that night she gave lessons to the noble rot of Europe on what majesty really looks like.”

This comes close to stage-door Johnny gush. But it also demonstrates a brave vulnerability, a willingness to be exalted in full view and stretched beyond his cultural background to cherish the Other. Margaret Fuller, the 19th-century American Transcendentalist, wrote, “Critics are poets cut down, says someone by way of jeer; but in truth they are men with the poetical temperament to apprehend, with the philosophical tendency to investigate.” There was more than a touch of the poet in John Leonard, alongside the cheerful investigator. It would be grand to have available a much larger selection of his pieces, either in subsequent volumes or online. Meanwhile, let’s be grateful for this eloquent sample of his writings, rescued from the dust of past periodicals.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/books ... -life.html
John Francis

jbuck919
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Re: Angels in the meatloaf: John Leonard, book reviewer

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Apr 10, 2012 9:24 pm

At a moment when it counted, Leonard pronounced himself unapologetically multicultural, championing writers of color and foreign authors as much as he did women writers. Toni Morrison testifies in her tribute: “John, you were the first — I suspect only — critic/reviewer to read and judge my work without condescension or patronage.” Indeed, Leonard seems rather to have been in awe of Morrison, never more so than when invited to attend her Nobel Prize ceremony. As he described it: “The winner of the prize came down the marble steps at last, on the arm of the king of Sweden. Never mind that I am pale and I am male. She’d taught me to imagine the lost history of her people, to read the signs of love and work and nightmare passage and redemptive music, to hear the deepest chords of exile. I was proud to be a citizen of whatever country Toni Morrison came from. And that night she gave lessons to the noble rot of Europe on what majesty really looks like.”
I have to wonder if she requires adulation like that in order not to conclude that she is being patronized or condescended to.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

John F
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Re: Angels in the meatloaf: John Leonard, book reviewer

Post by John F » Tue Apr 10, 2012 11:45 pm

Morrison neither says nor implies any such thing; it's Leonard's reviews, not his description of the Nobel ceremony, that she's speaking of. John, sometimes your cynicism goes beyond belief, and it's certainly gratuitous here.
John Francis

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Re: Angels in the meatloaf: John Leonard, book reviewer

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Apr 20, 2012 4:14 pm

John F wrote:Morrison neither says nor implies any such thing; it's Leonard's reviews, not his description of the Nobel ceremony, that she's speaking of. John, sometimes your cynicism goes beyond belief, and it's certainly gratuitous here.
I searched and searched for this and finally found it. It is an excerpt from an interview in which Morrison starts out by talking about her unabashedly racist father.

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m ... _21071954/

"His experience taught him that he was always in the company of inferior people when he was surrounded by Whites. You know, he didn't let White people in the house. They came when he was not there--you know, insurance men, and so on."

She added, "He was an ordinary man, but an extraordinary man at the same time. He was very clear about what the dangers were, and very clear about what he wanted for his children."

Asked if she felt the same way as her father when it comes to White people, she told Bradley: "No, I don't feel quite the same way as he did. With very few exceptions, I feel that White people will betray me; that in the final analysis, they'll give me up."

She continued, "If the trucks pass and they have to make a choice, they'll put me on that truck. That's really what I feel. There are some White people whom I have known over the years that I know would not do that, because they know I wouldn't do it to them. But there are very few of those people. By the way, there are lots of Black people who'd put me on that truck also [JB-yeah right, you're not just trying to undo what you just did], so I'm not trying to demonize the White race. It's just a kind of a constant vigilance and awareness that maybe these relationships can go just so far."

I happened to watch that interview years ago while visiting my mother (as you know I now live with her here). At the point where Morrison uttered the words I have highlighted, Mom, not normally a woman of penetrating insight, spiteful commentary, or interest in literary figures, shocked me by saying "Yes you are, you bitch," and IMO she was right (maybe not about the epithet). I'm sorry, John, but I had to find the back-up for my suspicion, and that is still all it is, that a white critic might have to adulate Morrison beyond the customary bounds of critical decorum for her to think she should take him seriously at all.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

John F
Posts: 19966
Joined: Mon Mar 26, 2007 4:41 am
Location: Brooklyn, NY

Re: Angels in the meatloaf: John Leonard, book reviewer

Post by John F » Sat Apr 21, 2012 12:26 am

I still say you don't "have to wonder if she requires adulation like that in order not to conclude that she is being patronized or condescended to." You may choose to "wonder," but that's you, not Toni Morrison, who in this interview doesn't say or imply any such thing. What she says is, "There are some White people whom I have known over the years that I know would not [put me on the truck], because they know I wouldn't do it to them." This isn't about adulation, it's about a minimum standard of decency.

As for whether or not she was trying to "demonize the white race" - an entirely different question - she was not framing an indictment, she was confessing to her emotions, her feelings. She says these were influenced by her father, hardly unusual in families, and her father's feelings can't help but have been influenced by his earlier life in Georgia before moving to Ohio to escape the racism of his homeland. We're not just talking talking segregated schools and separate washrooms, we're talking lynchings:

http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/ ... ?id=h-2717

I'm not going to try to psychoanalyze Morrison's father as you tried to psychoanalyze her, but it's important to have some understanding of where he was coming from - literally as well as figuratively.
John Francis

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